Feminism and Men

Nikki van der Gaag

Book Review

Men’s place and involvement in the feminist movement is hotly debated and highly contentious. Even as working with men becomes more commonplace and accepted in work towards gender equality, the tensions over why and how the feminist movement works with men still bubble close to the surface. As one respondent to Nikki van der Gaag’s survey carried out for this book wrote, ‘In my experience, there are some feminists who are strongly against men becoming involved in feminist issues’ (p. 26).

Indeed, at a recent conference I attended on working with men to achieve gender justice, there were some feminist invitees who refused to attend and be part of the conversation about working with men towards gender equality, so strong were their beliefs that feminism and the women’s movement should not be diverted to a men and masculinities agenda.

In this context, Feminism and Men provides an important insight into both the history of such tensions, and the necessity to move beyond them to a place where both women and men who strive for gender justice are able to combine their efforts to achieve their goal.

As most of the current literature on men and masculinities, and all of the limited literature on men’s relationship to feminism, is derived from the Northern perspective, the global overview given in this book is much needed. Whilst Nikki van der Gaag offers a more global understanding of the issues at stake, she does so through the nuanced perspectives of individual experiences from a wide variety of communities and backgrounds. Introducing the voices, realities and experiences of individuals from around the world, Nikki van der Gaag gathers evidence through interviews and personal narratives whilst synthesising data and theoretical debates from a wide range of sources, in addition to an online survey of those involved in global gender networks, specifically undertaken for the book.

Nikki van der Gaag begins by exploring the contemporary themes and debates surrounding feminism and the ways in which men and women relate and interact with these. The book then covers a wide variety of important issues, including shifting cultural and social attitudes, pornography, religion, LGBTI rights, education and health, paid and unpaid work, care and fatherhood, and violence, looking not only at the negative consequences of gender norms for women, but also for both men who conform to dominant ideals of masculinity and those who do not.

Nikki van der Gaag explores the ‘real boys don’t cry’ attitude and other similar ‘ideals’ of toughness and detachment that pervade many dominant ‘norms’ of masculinity, along with the continuing understanding of men as ‘provider’, and the associated effects on men’s ability to seek medical support for both physical and psychological problems, to embrace fatherhood, to connect emotionally with their partners, family, friends and community, and to ask for help when needed. She also highlights risky behaviours for men, stemming from traditional views of manhood, such as substance misuse and unsafe sexual practices, considering the adverse outcomes for men, as well as for women.

Some of the richest content in the book comes from the voices of men who have subverted dominant, masculine ‘ideals’, telling how this has often been much to the consternation or amusement of other men, and sometimes women, and how through not conforming to such ideals they have been able to achieve a sense of happiness or satisfaction that had previously eluded them. For example, Nikki van der Gaag shares Steven’s story, a Sri Lankan man who assumed the responsibility of caring for his two children whilst his wife worked in the Middle East. Despite some embarrassment and initial difficulties, with men making fun of him, and women feeling sorry for him, Steven explains how he found the experience enormously rewarding:

There is definitely happiness in just being there. When I carry them and they kiss me, or even when they pull my hair, I get goose bumps. It makes me really happy…The need to be masculine suddenly disappeared… [before] my thinking was that I would earn the money and everything else was her responsibility. I don’t feel that way anymore. Of all the things in the world that money can’t buy, one is the love of a child (p. 144).

Personal narratives such as Steven’s, along with an explicit focus on the negative consequences of the masculine ‘ideals’ noted above, allow for recognition that achieving gender equality is not a zero sum game where men must relinquish and lose in order for women to gain, but instead is a process where all can benefit. As some men begin, then, and others continue to understand that the women in their lives, as well as their brothers, sons and they themselves can benefit from a more gender equal society, Nikki van der Gaag argues that it is imperative to provide a space to work together to achieve these ends. ‘Men and women need spaces to organise separately as well as together, but in the struggle to push back against the gender inequalities that lead to sexualisation, discrimination and violence, the many different voices need to be united. And there is still a long way to go’ (p. 211).

Nikki van der Gaag is clear in her argument that feminism must include men, and men must embrace feminism if gender equality is to be achieved, and does a good job of spelling out why this must happen. However, as she asserts, there is still a long way to go, and it is important, beyond this book, to continue exploring how the tensions and debates that prevent men who want to see gender justice achieved from being embraced by feminism – can be overcome, to allow all voices for gender equality to be heard. Nikki van der Gaag sets a challenge for all of those striving for gender justice to find an enabling environment in which to work together.

Overall, this is an informative and engaging read which is easily accessible in both language and style. In some places the book can be heavy with statistics, but on the whole these add depth and insight to the current debates on men and gender, and are balanced by personal stories of men and women that provide the faces behind the statistics, maintaining the reader’s interest and engagement along the way. Plentiful references to existing literature result in this being a very useful starting point for those new to this field, whilst the synthesising of statistics and qualitative data along with original and meaningful case studies mean it is also a valuable resource for those who are already working in this area.

© 2015, Jemma Stringer, Gender Justice Officer, Oxfam GB, UK, email: jestringer@oxfam.org.uk

Feminism and Men is published by Zed Books. Review originally published in Gender & Development 23.1 (2015)